Kurosawa 101: Day Three (1949 - 1950)

[12 October 2010]

By PopMatters Staff

The Quiet Duel
(1949)

The Quiet Duel is a morality tale about a good man coming to terms with fleshly passions. The titular “duel” is that between a young doctor’s moral equilibrium and the desires of his heart, even those most identifiable and seemingly noble. In only his second collaboration with Akira Kurosawa, Toshiro Mifune plays a wartime surgeon, Dr. Kyoji Fujisaki, whose clinical understanding of humanity is given a crash course.

Having spent his tour of duty stitching together soldiers broken by modern warfare, as well as attending to their carnal indiscretions, Kyoji is all too cognizant of the repercussions of vice. He has hitherto protected his emotions by remaining clinically detached. But when he contracts syphilis through exposure to a patient’s blood, he no longer has the luxury of considering such matters through a microscope; to remain true to his ideals now requires dire sacrifice.

As a syphilitic, he feels that he can no longer marry the woman he loves, she who has long been the object of his ascetic meditations during wartime, the prize he would claim for staying true to his work and keeping from soldierly distractions. Now, after the war, because he cannot bear the thought of infecting her or bringing himself to confess his shame, she becomes to him a kind of temptress. The innocent love that had been his comfort now can only torment him.

A series of interwoven subplots add texture to Kyoji’s dilemma. Nakada, the man with the infectious blood, figures thematically as a baser version of Kyoji; Nakada represents all that Kyoji would like to do, and Nakada’s bad end demonstrates the dangers that would seem to issue from such unruly behavior. The past indiscretions of Nurse Minegishi—who earlier in the film has become pregnant out of wedlock and is in despair, only to find inspiration in Kyoji—and are given an example in Kyoji’s selflessness; the pathos of his situation has a restorative effect on her character, such that she nurses a fiercely loyal affection for him, even hoping that once his illness has been healed, that he might reciprocate the feelings that she has for him.

Finally Kyoji’s betrothed, Misao Matsumotu, complicates the doctor’s dilemma by remaining faithful even when given little reason. Kyoji would not have Misao wait an inordinate time for his illness to heal and, thus, keeps her in the dark on the finer points of his reasoning, perhaps hoping his unfairness will make the break somewhat easier for her. Her steadfastness to him becomes his worst temptation and, in fact, makes the audience question Kyoji’s prudence in holding her at bay.

The scenes in which Misao pleads her former intended to open his heart to her are among the most moving of the film; they crystallize every aspect of his plight, the moral imperative that stalks him and the temptation that seems so prudent, so life-affirming. She eventually marries someone else after his absolute declaration that they cannot marry, but even so each retains an obvious affection for the other.

The film’s dwelling on the social implications of illness are evocative of the class anxieties of the time in which it was made. The sexual component accompanying contraction of syphilis brings with it designations of poverty and, superficially, the mores of lower class. As an educated professional, Kyoji should be “above” such considerations, but the hazards of his occupation put him at risk. Ironically, in his willingness to care for the wounds of those of a lower station, he threatens his own. Taking the moral high road has opened him up to castigation on moral grounds.

The most telling line in the film, perhaps, is that spoken by the young doctor in confessing his infection to his father: “I tried to think of the worst disease… And it was the one I had.” In characterizing the source of the infection as a self-fulfilling prophecy, Kyoji traces his illness back to paranoiac roots.

Nathan Pensky

Stray Dog (1949)

Stray Dog
(1949)

“Bad luck either makes a man or destroys him,” Police Inspector Nakajima says midway through Stray Dog. One of his junior detectives, Murakami, played by Toshiro Mifune, has lost his pistol. Dazed by heat and exhaustion, he lets his guard down in a crowded streetcar, where a female pickpocket lifts the gun right out of his suit jacket. And so Murakami stands in front of the boss with his head bowed, ready to be castigated and thrown back jobless into the street. Instead, he’s assigned to track down the gun dealer who has his pistol. The case could redeem him, but to crack it Murakami must immerse himself in the criminal underworld of bombed-out postwar Tokyo.

Stray Dog marks a turning point both for Kurosawa as a filmmaker and for Japan as a nation. Filmed just four years after World War II, it takes the desolate and lawless environment of Occupied Japan as its prime subject. Ostensibly a police drama, the film covers the effects of poverty and war as much as the habits of criminals and policemen. These elements converge on the character Yusa, an impoverished veteran who buys Murakami’s pistol.  Embittered by his wartime experiences, he turns to crime out of despair, without hope that the money he steals will raise him from squalor. When Murakami visits Yusa’s family, he is shown the tiny shack where the thief lives. “I’d hardly call it a room,” his sister says, “It’s so makeshift.” Yusa’s shack stands for the makeshift world created by firebombs, food rationing, and cheap weapons, cobbled together by misguided determination and desperate hopes.

Stray Dog also marks an important place in Kurosawa’s early collaboration with Toshiro Mifune. The actor caught his first leading role with the director only a year earlier with Drunken Angel.  In playing Murakami, Mifune would further refine a trademark role: the bumbling, emotionally volatile youth, at once a misfit and still eager to please authority. But while this kind of character gives opportunity for wide range of emotions, it makes for a rather implausible homicide detective. At times Murakami even begs his suspects for clues.  Yet if Murakami’s credibility as a cop wears a bit thin, the character also subtly inverts the noir trope of the cool, cynical gumshoe. 

Mifune’s volatile performance is balanced by another Kurosawa regular, Takashi Shimura, who plays Murakami’s partner, Detective Sato. Sato reigns in the junior detective’s crusading instincts, offering himself as the voice of hard won experience. This rather conventional master-pupil relationship is enriched by Shimura’s relaxed and confident screen presence. Kurosawa would revisit this dynamic a number of times using the same actors, but it is surprising to see it so well formed in such an early stage in his career.

Throughout the filming of Stray Dog, Kurosawa marshaled his superhuman attention to detail in order to portray the Tokyo underworld as realistically as possible. His camera lingers on crowded streets teeming with shiftless, haggard people selling ration cards, guns, and sex. These scenes have an almost documentary feel to them, which is natural given that many were filmed in actual black-market stalls. Kurosawa also experimented with camera technique to make the film more true to life. In key scenes, he resorted to filming at a distance through telephoto lenses in order to get more spontaneous performances from the extras. Kurosawa would later use this technique extensively in masterworks such as Seven Samurai.

Kurosawa regarded Stray Dog as a small failure. It is true that the film’s message, that one must choose right no matter what the circumstances, is driven home a bit too didactically. And yet it still remains one of the director’s better early works. The bleakness of post-war Japan is captured so masterfully that it prevents the message from becoming trite. Both Kurosawa and Mifune were still developing their talents, and would later revisit the same themes and characters that shortly would bring them world renown. While Stray Dog merits viewing on its own, it is particularly exciting in view of what Kurosawa was to do next.

Matt Spencer

Scandal (1950)

Scandal
(1950)

Scandal is regarded by many as one of Kurosawa’s weakest films. Kurosawa was throughout his career a moralist, either providing us examples of how people should live, as with Watanabe in Ikiru, who awakens from his death-in-life to fight the city bureaucracy to build a playground, or with the samurai Kambei in Seven Samurai, who organizes the defense of a group of villagers from bandits out of compassion for their plight; or on the contrary with cautionary tales of what can happen with lives lived for greed or for the wrong motives, such as Throne of Blood and Ran. All of his films reflect a deeply moral point of view, but a couple move beyond this to out and out moralizing, and this is something that no filmmaker, not even Kurosawa, can do well.

The other Kurosawa film that Scandal most closely resembles is The Bad Sleep Well, which also tries to expose the immorality of a segment of Japanese society. In the latter the attack is against corporate immorality, or companies that put the needs of those in economic power over that of individuals. Although The Bad Sleep Well begins with a justly celebrated wedding dinner that is among the most brilliant scenes that Kurosawa has ever directed, the rest of the film feels like someone yelling from a soapbox. Sadly, there are no comparable brilliant moments in Scandal, and even the least interesting parts of the Bad Sleep Well are more interesting than any parts of the earlier film. It is not merely one of Kurosawa’s weakest films; but one of his least interesting.

The target in Scandal is the gossip tabloids that arose in Japan along with the freedom of the press that was guaranteed by the American Occupation. It is frequently said that Kurosawa was the most Western of Japanese filmmakers, but he was also the most brutal critic of the changes being wrought in Japan by American influence. In The Bad Sleep Well he gave voice to his dislike of the free market capitalism brought to Japan by America; in Scandal he attacked the more tawdry side effects of having a free press, along with more than a few jibes at the rising consumerism in Japan.

The story in the film is a simple one:  a painter and a famous singer meet very casually while on vacation. After they each shower in their own rooms, he enters her room to small talk and suggests a beautiful area nearby she should visit. Leaning out over the balcony to point the spot out, both of them in their bathrobes and towels in hand, paparazzi take their picture, and a tabloid prints stories of their supposed romance.

The painter (played by Toshiro Mifune) decides to sue the tabloid and the most entertaining performance of the film is provided by Takashi Shimura, who plays the seedy lawyer whom Mifune hires out of sympathy for Shimura’s young daughter, who is dying of tuberculosis (a very widespread condition in post-WW II). In order to buy toys to comfort his daughter, Shimura takes a bribe from the owner of the tabloid. But after his daughter dies, he confesses to the court his misdeeds, which causes the case for the defense to collapse.

The only interesting parts of the film revolve around the implied critique of the negative effects of the American occupation. The film constantly shows signs in English around the city and shows countless forms of American influence. In one scene a character is accosted by a tall Japanese man dressed weirdly as Santa Claus, in front of a glass window advertising a Christmas sale. Later we see Mifune’s artist and the singer helping the lawyer’s daughter celebrate Christmas by singing “Silent Night” in Japanese. And in perhaps the oddest scene in the film, we see Toshiro Mifune riding his motorcycle with a fully decorated Christmas tree on the back.

Interestingly, from Drunken Angel until Throne of Blood, every other Kurosawa film was a relatively weak film, the one exception being the consecutive films Ikiru and Seven Samurai. Luckily, every film from Throne of Blood through Red Beard, except for The Bad Sleep Well, is an outstanding film. Scandal unfortunately represents one of the “off” years.

Robert Moore

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/132083-kurosawa-101-day-three/